The Other Half

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Tom Buk-Swienty first learned about Jacob Riis in a course on the Progressive Era when he was an exchange student at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Although a history major, Buk-Swienty had never heard of Riis, who was relatively unknown in Denmark. Intrigued by the idea that a Danish American strongly affected American social history, he found an old copy of Riis’s How the Other Half Lives (1890) and was fascinated by the power of Riis’s language and photographs depicting New York City’s squalid slums. Seeing an exhibit of Riis’s photographs in the 1990’s stimulated Buk-Swienty to research and write The Other Half.

Using diaries and letters, and stressing the historical context of Riis’s activities, Buk-Swienty provides the reader with an informative narrative of Riis’s life. He devotes the first fifty pages of his book to Riis’s life in the stuffy, somnolent town of Ribe. Buk-Swienty notes that Riis later romanticized the town in his memoirs, contrasting life there to crowded city slums and ignoring how unhealthy Ribe actually was. Only three of his parents’ fourteen children reached adulthood, most dying of tuberculosis. Riis rebelled against his father, a stern village schoolmaster, dropped out of school at fifteen, and apprenticed himself to a carpenter. That same year he fell in love with twelve-year-old Elisabeth Giørtz, the adopted daughter of the richest man in town.

Buk-Swienty covers Riis’s love affair in detail, through its various vicissitudes to a final happy ending. Upon completing his apprenticeship in October, 1869, Riis proposed to Elisabeth, who flatly rejected him. Since Riis had fantasized about her during his five-year apprenticeship in Copenhagen, he was totally unprepared for her refusal. He fell into a deep depression, and he decided to seek his fortune in the United States. On May 1, 1870, he left Ribe with forty American dollars, some clothing, and a locket containing a picture of Elisabeth and a lock of her hair given to him by a sympathetic friend.

The author narrates Riis’s life in America as a rags-to-riches story, from deep poverty in the 1870’s to affluence and fame in the 1890’s. His first job at a mining company in Pennsylvania, working as a carpenter building miners’ huts, paid only $10.63 for the month. He returned to New York City, where his money ran out. Riis wandered the streets, homeless, begging for food at the back door of restaurants and contemplating suicide. While he was sleeping at a police station sheltering homeless men, someone stole the locket with Elisabeth’s hair. When Riis angrily protested the loss and fought with police, they subdued him and put him on a ferry to New Jersey.

Riis walked to Philadelphia, where a sympathetic Danish consul sent him to Jamestown, New York. Riis found temporary jobs, and he proved to be a successful traveling salesman. When paid less than the promised commission, Riis headed back to New York City in 1873, hoping to train as a telegraph operator, a well-paid occupation. Despite the deep depression following the Panic of 1873, Riis found a night job as a reporter at ten dollars a week to pay for his training, thereby stumbling on his true calling. In 1874, he became editor of a Brooklyn weekly, writing all four pages himself for twenty-four dollars a week. Buk-Swienty admiringly notes that, unlike most adult immigrants who rarely acquire more than rudimentary fluency in English, in four years Riis had become sufficiently at home in his new language to become a successful journalist.

In May, 1873, he heard that Elisabeth had become engaged to a war hero of the Danish-German War, which infuriated Riis, who still hoped she would change her mind once he had succeeded in America. He concentrated on his American career. When the owners of his paper agreed in January, 1875, to sell it to him for $675, payable in installments, he became owner of the South Brooklyn News. Late in 1874, Riis learned that Elisabeth’s fiancé had died of tuberculosis before the marriage could take place, rekindling his hopes. In August, 1875, he wrote to Elisabeth, eliciting an angry rejection letter that she gave to Riis’s mother, who decided not to forward it.

Elisabeth was estranged from her family and working as a governess to support herself, a position she disliked. In October, she reconsidered her rejection and wrote to Riis explaining that, although she was not in love with him, she appreciated his long devotion to her and would be willing to...

(The entire section is 1857 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

American History 43, no. 5 (December, 2008): 68-69.

Booklist 104, no. 22 (August 1, 2008): 30.

Houston Chronicle, September 7, 2008, p. 14.

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 11 (June 1, 2008): 70.

Library Journal 133, no. 11 (June 15, 2008): 65.

The New York Sun, August 27, 2008, p. 11.

The New Yorker 84, no. 29 (September 22, 2008): 91.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 21 (May 26, 2008): 48.

San Francisco Chronicle, September 21, 2009, p. M4.

The Wall Street Journal 252, no. 47 (August 25, 2008): A11.